Back in 2016 my friend James Winchester pulled together an incredible number of people, bikes and machines to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the venerated Italian brand, Masi Bicycles.
James was the product manager for Masi, and when you’re the product manager of a small brand, you’re charged with an incredible number of duties. You design the new bikes, you forecast sales, you work with the factory producing the bikes, you pick what parts are on them and you lead the charge on marketing. On the surface, it sounds like a fun job, but unless you love the minutiae of spreadsheets, and are amazing with details, the job can be hell.
James brought together Americans who had won national and even world championships on Masi bikes, like Janie Eickhoff, people who had run the Masi USA operation like Ted Kirkbride, and people who helped make the Masi name famous, like Dennis Christopher, star of the film Breaking Away.
One of the more amazing elements of the celebration was an event held at a small theater in the San Diego suburbs, a question-and-answer session with Christopher, which produced an epic surprise. Christopher explained to us that Dave Stoller’s character, as originally written by screenwriter Steve Tesich, was a lout. He was a womanizer and less about the romance that carried the movie forward, than the conquest.
Christopher didn’t believe that version of the character true to the arc of the film. In his mind, Dave Stoller was a true romantic, in love with Italy and captivated by the idea of being a pro cyclist. So, he sat down with Tesich and worked with him to re-invent just who Stoller was—this idealistic kid who didn’t understand much about the real world, a kid who still doted on his mom, but didn’t have a clear sense of his identity and how identity is informed by integrity.
In short, Dennis Christopher gave us the Dave Stoller we fell in love with.
The next day, 100 or so riders gathered at Campagnolo USA’s headquarters for a ride with Dennis Christopher. Christopher still has the Masi that he rode in the film and while he rode it with a flat bar for some years, it has been restored to its build as seen in the film. He is a slight man and doesn’t often ride bikes, so someone had arranged for him to ride an e-bike on our little jaunt down the coast.
Just one problem, the ride rolled out and no one had shown him how the controller worked on the bike he’d been loaned, so 100 of my friends took off on a group ride and within moments, they were all up the road. I’d stayed with him, mainly because one of the things I like to do is get photos of people actually riding bikes, and getting an image of Dennis Christopher on an e-bike was an ad campaign waiting to happen (As an aside: He’s a big believer in e-bikes).
So he and I and one other rider pulled over, and I figured out the motor was off, no assist at all. So, I bumped it up and showed him where the selector was so that he could set his assist level. Then we got back to our ride.
Here’s the thing; with the group up the road, Dennis became rather anxious. We talked, and what he told me was that he felt so honored to help create a film that had become such a touchstone in cycling culture, that he felt a responsibility to live up to the character he had created. He felt like an impostor.
What I shared with him was that we hoped he would see the event as, in part, a way for us to thank him for speaking on our behalf. He had created someone who felt true to our experience. His responsibility was over; he had done his work. This was our opportunity to thank him and celebrate his effort in bringing to life a character that transcended cycling.
My overwhelming desire was to communicate to him that he was among friends, that he was in a population that accepted him, and he could remove the mask. We accepted him in full. We weren’t expecting him to be Dave Stoller.
It was a really touching experience for me, riding with him, and to the degree I could be the person to thank him on behalf of the cycling community, that’s what I’d wanted to do, but beyond that, we’d shared a very personal moment and connected in a way that will be precious to me the rest of my days.
On my way home I texted him a quote from the Cameron Crowe film, Almost Famous. It’s attributed to the music critic Lester Bangs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. In it, he says, “The only true currency in this bankrupt work is when you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
That was a great movie and a great character. Stuck with me in grad school and one day, riding back to Stony Brook from the east end of Long Island, I got into the slipstream of an eighteen wheeler and sucked that set of wheels for likely ten miles headed back on NY 25A back to Port Jefferson. Thinking, of course, of Dave Stoller/Dennis Christopher all the way. And that music still cuts ten minutes off of a bike ride if I think about it.